Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment

Seamus Perry writes:

Bearing in mind Barbauld’s disposition to ‘enthusiasm’ and dislike of doctrinal disputes, McCarthy wonders whether, despite her reputation both then and now, she was strictly speaking a committed Unitarian at all, or whether she was not, rather, moved by some intuitive emotional response of ‘gratitude and joy’ for which a baggy sort of Unitarian feeling seemed to allow room. What she admired in the poet Mark Akenside, author of The Pleasures of Imagination, was what she called ‘the purest Theism; liberal, cheerful, and sublime’, which seems to describe her own position too: that might help explain her influence on later poets with no Unitarian dogma to propagate, such as Wordsworth, whose own great poetry of religious feeling manages to be, in William Empson’s memorable phrase, ‘uplifting yet non-denominational’. Her subsequent publications are not obviously driven by any impulse to theological self-definition, though they recurrently strike what might sound like a Unitarian note of principled brightness: McCarthy describes her as having a ‘good-humoured hopefulness’, which seems right.

(LRB 25 February 2010)

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